“Who created you? Who is your God? Who do you pray to?” asked a Syrian regime soldier to a man he was torturing and beating in a small dank room. The prisoner shouted back, “Bashar Al-Assad!” His torturer then asked him, “Who is better, God or Bashar?” The prisoner again shouted: “Bashar Al-Assad! There is no god but Bashar!” The film of this encounter was released in the early days of the Syrian revolution along with other clips, including one of an activist being buried alive while screaming his last words – “There is no god but God” – in defiance of the soldiers shovelling earth onto his head until he could scream no longer.
Such evidence of the regime’s brutality and its raising of Bashar Al-Assad to god-like status was the last straw for many religious observers of the developments in the revolution. It transformed it from the usual narrative of a Middle Eastern dictator crushing his own people into a modern Pharaonic tyrant persecuting the millions of Moses-like innocent protestors, turning it into a religious struggle encompassing not only the Levant but also the rest of the Muslim world. Such was the prevalent feeling among Western Muslims all those years ago.
Fast forward seven years, and by far the biggest hypocrisy witnessed over the past two weeks has been the reaction to Turkey’s military operation in north-east Syria. Following Turkey’s launch of its third military incursion into the war-torn country in the second week of October, the outrage was telling of the global bias against the country which sits in both Europe and Asia.
Just hours after President Donald Trump gave his blessings for the operation to proceed, the US apparently opposed the move and threatened to “decimate the Turkish economy” if it went too far; the EU condemned it, with the exception of Spain; the Gulf Arab states expressed their dissatisfaction with it; and much of the Western media in particular sided with the Kurdish militias, despite their links to an internationally-designated terrorist group.
The world seemed to have abandoned the objective view that Turkey was facing a legitimate national security threat from the terrorist-linked militias on its border. Forgotten too was the fact that the US and its NATO and other allies have invaded Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria due to alleged terrorist threats a whole 6,000 miles away, and in the name of “bringing the fight to them” before “they” attack first.
The opposition to the operation was not simply an attack on Turkey’s sovereignty and projection of power; it was more broadly an attack against any form of power or influence by Sunni Muslims in the region. Ever since his country’s Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has – intentionally or unintentionally – managed to unite the Sunni players in Syria, particularly the Turkmen militias and those fighting in the embattled Idlib province. Regionally, too, Erdoğan has ignited sentiment from many – though not all – Sunni Muslims throughout the Levant, as was seen recently with Sunni protestors in Lebanon chanting, “With our soul, with our blood, we will sacrifice it for you, O Erdoğan.”
While the coalition of opposition groups, many of which support and are assisting in the operation, are largely made up of Sunnis, the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) are secularists and Marxists. The Syrian regime, meanwhile, is dominated by the Alawites –aligned politically with the Shia – and is backed by Iran and its Shia militias based in Iraq and Lebanon.
As of this year, Sunni Muslims made up 74 per cent of the Syrian population, making it the single largest demographic in the country despite the constant persecution they have faced at the hands of the Alawite and Shia minorities both prior and during the war. Since 2011, there have emerged countless examples of entire Sunni families being massacred by Assad’s soldiers and loyalist Shabiha militias; of mosques being desecrated and worshippers ridiculed; and of Sunnis being labelled collectively as Daesh supporters and terrorist sympathisers.
It is true that the Syrian civil war did not start out as a religious conflict, nor is it recognised as such even now, but many fail to notice its religious and sectarian elements and the fact that prior to the rise of Daesh and any “Islamist” group, Assad made it so by elevating himself to the status of a god and allowing Iran and its Shia militias to intervene.
It is also true that while Turkey does not solely represent the mainstream Sunni world and it is essentially one state among many, its role in the Syrian conflict and uniting of the Sunni groups means that it has achieved something that a country like Saudi Arabia has long dreamt of becoming before its secularisation; the vague representation of a political beacon of the Sunni Muslim world.
After the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire lay in ruins and the colonial powers preyed on the remnants of its former territories, the French who held Syria saw potential in the Alawite and Druze communities, the poor and tribal peoples who were the underdogs of the region. They then raised the Alawites up from the dirt, educated them and recruited them into the military while banning Sunnis from joining, all in order to act as a counterweight to the majority Sunni Muslim population. The British, too, supported the Alawites and sent diplomats to observe them and single out the sect’s leaders for future advantage; Bashar’s father, Hafez Al-Assad, was among them.
As a French governor in Syria was quoted as saying, the Alawites “could be extremely useful, perhaps even indispensable. They are all armed and possess weapons, and if they wished could put up a stiff resistance to us. We have the greatest interest in gaining their good feelings and even favouring them.” When Syria became independent, therefore, the Alawites were already transformed into an educated and elite class who held high ranks in the military and society. That is why the Assad dynasty is now in power and the Alawites have a stranglehold on the country.
Just as the French groomed the Alawites to overpower the Sunnis a century ago, the West is now content to allow them and their Iran-backed Shia co-religionists to massacre the Sunnis. Much of the international community is tolerant of the Shia militias, and particularly ecstatic about the Kurdish groups. With the YPG holding influence and territorial power, many in the West have dreamt about the group establishing a secular Utopia in the region, which would be in line with Western liberal values well-reflected by the perfectly groomed image of Kurdish female militants wielding rifles with their hair uncovered.
After eight years of bloodshed and countless unspeakable atrocities, the main losers in the Syrian conflict are the mainstream Sunni Muslims, and the smear campaign aimed at the Turkish operation – however valid – is carried out with the conscious or subconscious intention of repressing any level of Sunni power or influence in the Middle East. Their regional rivals may despise the Sunnis, but the West fears them.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.